BERTHA THE MOM is a new chamber opera to be premiered by Michael Weyandt (baritone), Alice Teyssier (soprano), Peter Evans (trumpet), and Sam Pluta (electronics). The work will integrate my research into the early history of psychoanalysis as a treatment of hysteria with creative composition and improvisational performance. The so-called talking cure allegedly cured hysteria by releasing traumas stored in the body through speech. The opera will explore the voice in psychoanalysis in a creative context, confronting the vexed relationship between biological and philosophical definitions of voice, building on my most recent compositions for singer and ensemble. Already a work in progress, a version of the opera was presented last year in New York by the ensemble Mise-En. It was recently awarded a commissioning grant by the American Composer’s Forum Jerome Fund for New Music.
In 1880 Vienna, Dr. Josef Breuer, the respected general practitioner and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, began treating a young woman by the name of Bertha Pappenheim. She suffered from “hysteria”: paralysis, hallucinations, unusual pains, and severely disturbed speech. Pappenheim, - later known as the mythical “Fräulein Anna O.” – allegedly found that putting her problems into words alleviated her symptoms, thus playing a formidable role in the creation of what would become known as the psychoanalytic method. So the story goes, Breuer broke off treatment after Pappenheim developed a hysterical pregnancy, believing the baby to be Breuer's. This opera asks: what if the pregnancy was real?
BERTHA THE MOM will interweave my three areas of work – composition, historical musicology, and experimental performance. In my scholarly project, I assert that the doctors who invented psychoanalysis held beliefs about the physiological capacity of the voice to transform physical maladies through talk. In the same way psychoanalysis has ignored the sound of voices in therapy, focusing instead on the hidden meanings that lie behind the words, my opera will ignore the semantic meanings voice can convey. Instead, Freud and Breuer’s 1895 publication Studies on Hysteria will be used as a generative sonic record, disregarding the use of Breuer’s text as language, and recomposing the prose for sonic fluidity and integrity.
Like the psychoanalyst, the composer controls the production of knowledge, while the act of performance lives only in the space of moment-to-moment experience. I will approach this disjunction by dividing the musical material in two, trying to account for both the historical record, imposed by Freud and Breuer, as well as the experience, impossible to know, as lived by Pappenheim herself. The juxtaposition of these two modes of composition interrogates the imbalance of prestige held by notated music over music composed through aural practice, highlighting the power imbalance between Breuer’s and Pappenheim’s control over their shared history.
The incarnation of this work in progress documented here, a twenty two minute performance called STUDIES ON HYSTERIA by myself (voice), PETER EVANS (trumpet), and SAM PLUTA (electronics). I play the role of the hysteric, Sam plays the role of the doctor, and Peter plays the role of my unconscious. This performance is from May 3, 2013, on a concert that was part of a conference on musical objects and technology called “Twilight of the Sound Object.”